Softer Chinese mood in the Johor polls

Joceline Tan, The Star

THE glamorous Dian Lee has been spotted moving around Batu Pahat town, doing volunteer work alongside the Muda team.

Batu Pahat is the hometown of her famous property tycoon father Tan Sri Lee Kim Yew and Dian’s presence in the Johor town has not gone unnoticed.

Apart from joining the Muda team to distribute aid to villagers affected by the recent floods, she has been doing the “people thing” – interacting with the locals as they do their morning marketing, chatting up the small traders and stepping down memory lane.

She shared pictures from the town on her social media, including one taken in 2003 of her father with a group of important-looking people at the opening of a new school. Among those in the photo was none other than the Sultan of Johor, then a young, slim and dark-haired prince.

The millionaire’s daughter with an activist streak captioned the series of photos: “Hello Batu Pahat. Papa’s hometown.”

Is the charismatic Muda president Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman prepping Dian as a candidate in the Johor election?

Syed Saddiq, who is always thinking out of the box, has captured the imagination of a broad cross-section of Malaysians.

He is having the sort of impact that Khairy Jamaluddin had when he first burst into Umno politics.

Johor will be the stage for Muda’s launch into electoral politics. The party has drawn positive feedback from all races in an election that will likely be decided along race lines.

Few other parties or coalitions have broad-based appeal of Muda.

Pakatan Harapan, for one, is back to relying on support from the Chinese who comprise about 30% of the state population.

The coalition is still the preferred choice of the community even though the Chinese hearts are no longer on fire like before.

For instance, the market in Senggarang, one of three state seats in Batu Pahat, used to be a hotbed of political opinions.

Up till a few years ago, people only had to comment on the price of fish and the fishmonger or the other traders would launch into a tirade on Umno, GST or Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

“That was the height of Chinese sentiment, they felt very proud when they voted Pakatan into power. Now it is quieter.

“I think they are disappointed their expectations was not achieved from one government to another. There was not much noise even when the state assembly was dissolved,” said Wilson Teo, a businessman who runs a printing shop in Batu Pahat.

Even DAP’S Gan Peck Cheng, the popular YB for Penggaram, would have sensed the cooler mood.

Penggaram, which encompasses Batu Pahat town, is a DAP stronghold. Just a few years ago, the folk in the kopitiam would be calling out to the DAP politician when she walked down the street. These days, the kopitiam crowd just go on with their meal.

The Chinese make up only about 30% to 35% of voters in the mixed seats but because they were able to move as one, they became the kingmaker with the split in Malay votes.

Bersatu won most of its seats in 2018 on the strength of Chinese support. The irony is that these very same Chinese votes will now be the cause of Bersatu’s downfall.

The Chinese blame Bersatu president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin for bringing down the Pakatan government. Couple that with the Chinese distrust of PAS and Perikatan Nasional is in for a rough ride.

According to Rita Sim, founder of the Cense think-tank, the Chinese mindset is not very different from one state to another except that in Johor, there are two additional factors, namely, Singapore and the Sultan of Johor.

The pandemic has hurt local businesses and Johor Baru is almost like a ghost town with the closed southern border.

Political stability, ricebowl issues and the economy are topmost in the minds of many Chinese voters, according to the study by the Cense team.

“Reopening the border with Singapore is crucial for the Johor economy. Malaysians work there while Singaporeans spend their dollars in Johor Baru’s restaurants, supermarkets and even petrol stations.

“They also own homes in Johor under the MM2H or Malaysia My Second Home programme. Singapore even has a consulate in Johor Baru,” said Sim.

Looming against this backdrop is the palace factor.

Chinese in Johor watch their larger-than-life sovereign quite closely.

“The Sultan is quite influential, he takes a close interest in the affairs of his subjects. He is known to step into the fray when politics in the state gets too messy. He is like some sort of balancing force.

“He is also seen as a moderate figure who has put his foot down on religious extremism such as when a laundry shop wanted to accept only Muslim patrons,” said Sim.

The extent to which these uniquely Johor factors will impact the Chinese voting pattern remains to be seen.

The non-Malay middle class are generally still critical of the Malay-based parties.

“The election is unnecessary, a waste of money. But I am planning to vote for the candidate, not the party,” said a retiree who resides in an exclusive part of Johor Baru.

The retiree had a string of complaints about the government but when asked if he and his friends want to change the government, there was a pause before he said: “We are fed-up with Umno and Bersatu, and Pas is a turn-off. But people speak highly of the MB”.

The retiree, formerly attached to an international organisation, praised Mentri Besar Datuk Hasni Mohammad for his fairness in giving equal allocations for all state assemblymen regardless of their parties.

“He’s not arrogant, the way he speaks appeals to us,” he said.

Hasni’s moderate and sensible personality has indeed become an asset to Barisan.

The Chinese votes will help carry Pakatan into the state election but it needs Malay support to cross the finishing line. And that is a big problem for Pakatan.